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Meg Duffy’s Hand Habits project is a clash between the personal and the observational. A self-described gatherer, Duffy has quickly become a mesmerizing voice in indie-folk because of their keen sketches of relationships both intimate and out-of-focus.
Duffy wrote most of the music for their stunning and stellar debut LP, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), in their hometown in Upstate New York. Shortly after, they moved to Los Angeles and began anew 3,000 miles away. But as they tell us, with a life on the road, home is never as defined as it’s portrayed. This is reflected in Hand Habits’ second LP, placeholder, which is out this week, and is available from Vinyl Me, Please here. The people change, the stories, too, but the narrator remains constant.
Everything about placeholder is assured. Backed by a who’s-who of engineers and mixers, LP number two sounds crisper and more defined than its predecessor. Duffy’s found a bigger home, too. After releasing Wildly Idle on the excellent Woodsist, they’ve moved to Saddle Creek for placeholder. The result is noticeable from the opening notes of the title track. The drums pop and sizzle, the instrumentation bursts forward — both lush and precise. Even though most of these songs were written in their bedroom, Duffy wanted this album to sound less “bedroom-y.” They succeeded in a spellbinding and arresting fashion.
“jessica” drifts into melancholic dream pop, riding a loping tambourine and subtle slide guitar to a cathartic resolve. “wildfire,” perhaps intentionally, begins with a campfire-recalling acoustic guitar riff. The track is a reflection of the fires that swallowed Southern California during the end of last summer. It’s a gorgeous ode to Western ideality slowly turning to harsh realities. “California / Only one who knows / How to burn without the flame / Like wildfire,” they sing. It’s poignant yet still able to convey a certain devastating heartbreak.
placeholder is a stunning encapsulation of a world both distant and a touch away. It’s the fleeting moments of day before the last choke of sunlight disappears completely. Meg Duffy is so careful in the way they make these moments that it’s hard to feel unattached. It’s a layer of smoke, beginning to clear. Or maybe growing bigger.
VMP: Your last record focused on moving somewhere new and leaving home. With this album, do you feel more like an L.A. resident, more comfortable with the city?
I’m not sure the last album was really about moving to a new city because I started most of those songs before I moved here. But yeah, I do feel settled in L.A. I moved into a new house and it feels like I’m settling all over again. I’m not sure that’s reflected on the record lyrically, though. I’m not necessarily aware of that, but I do personally feel settled, although I do think it’s hard to feel settled as a touring musician in general, no matter where you are.
Does that take a toll on you? Do you get used to it? Is it a constant state of feeling unsettled?
Yeah, for sure. It’s not constant, but it’s hard to feel settled when you’re leaving the environment for months at a time.
Did Los Angeles as a city and place impact the way you made this record?
Environmentally, especially. The song “wildfire” is about actual wildfires and I don’t think that would have happened in upstate New York. Even just being in my upstairs bedroom, where I demoed out the songs, the things I was seeing... All of that figured into the record.
How did you link up with Saddle Creek?
They approached me. I made the record before I signed with Saddle Creek.
So they approached you asking if you had any new music?
I did a 7” with them and they had always expressed interest in my music. I did a 7” last year. They heard some of the new songs while I was shopping the record and Saddle Creek was the label I was most excited to work with because they were the people I felt most familiar being around.
Were you a fan of that label growing up?
I really like Land of Talk. They’re like my favorite band.
A lot of your songwriting is both personal and observational. When you examine relationships you personally have in songs, does that put a strain on those relationships?
Not on my end (laughs).
Does that thought ever cross your mind from their perspective?
Yeah, I have a song title that is someone I’ve dated. It had their name and I sent it to her. She just said it was a really nice song.
So you approached her beforehand?
Yeah, I was just like, ‘I want you to hear this from me in a way that won’t catch you off-guard.’
If anyone opposed, would you consider leaving things off the record?
No. Sorry (laughs).
Can you talk about your thinking regarding the title? What does it represent for you?
It comes from the single and what that whole song is about. Being a stand-in, feeling temporary, knowing that we’re not the final product — although I know that’s not right.
Is that in reference to you, your music, your relationships?
I’d say all of the above.
Was there anything specific you wanted to do differently on this record versus the last one?
I definitely wanted to focus on my voice. I feel a lot more comfortable with my voice than I did while making the last one. Having more than one microphone definitely helps (laughs). I wanted it to sound less bedroom-y as well.
Did you practice recording or train your voice? How did you go about trying to improve those things?
I learned how to use my voice from touring the last three years, just singing more. I didn’t record this album. I worked with a few engineers. Brandon Stroup did the vocals and Andrew Sarlo did a song, too. Chris Messina helped and Zach Hanson engineered most of it. Tucker Martine mixed it, too. I didn’t have anything to do with the sonic aspect in terms of manning the hardware.
I know Tucker Martine worked on the last William Tyler record, which you contributed to as well. What was that experience like?
It was really fun. I learned that instrumental music can hold up and be interesting. I learned how to make those sort of arrangements sound good. I really liked playing with Griffin Goldsmith [Dawes]. He got me thinking a lot about percussion and the power of it as well. I’d like to explore that while making my next record.
Do you like playing on other people’s stuff?
Yeah, I do a lot of session work.
How does that diverge from your own creative output?
It allows for me to be directed by somebody else, which can be challenging in a really good way. I’m less precious about it because it’s not mine. It forces me to think differently from the perspective of somebody else, which I really like.
Are you a perfectionist with your own music?
Maybe a little, but not by definition.
With how often you write, do you ever have trouble knowing when something’s done?
Not really, because I’m a really impatient person, but it’s something I’m working on. I like to have something feel good to me and I can be known to do many, many takes to get it right. I wouldn’t be one of those people who doesn’t know when something’s done then all of a sudden years pass and it’s still not done. My logic brain kicks in and tells me that it’s time to release control.
Is that impatience difficult because of the way release cycles and touring cycles beget a sort of patience?
I’m just really fortunate that playing music is my job. If it got to a point where I needed to get another job I wouldn’t be above that. I can’t really force myself to write. Although I’m always gathering, I go months and months without writing a song. That’s not conducive to the cycle, either, and I’m not really worried about that because of the session work I do. I’m really fortunate to have that.
How do you go about gathering these ideas?
I write some stuff down, but sometimes I’ll remember something enough to remember it.
Do you feel beholden to the truth with the things you observe?
Truth is subjective, so it’s hard to answer that question.
What about if you’re telling a story about a relationship? Do you allow yourself to fictionalize?
I don’t really fictionalize that much, but people from the other side of my stories might consider what I’m saying to be a fictionalization. I’m just speaking from my experience.
How do getting these stories out affect you?
It’s really validating when people approach me and say that they were having a hard time until they could relate to one of my songs.
Does that happen fairly often?
Yeah, especially within the queer community. That’s really important to me.
You’ve spoken about queering relationships in your music. What does that mean to you, and how is that reflected in your music?
There are a lot of societal norms that I feel really comfortable and compelled to challenge, because they’re really rooted in structures that I don’t necessarily feel apply to the way that I handle relationships. Specifically, being queer, having intimate friendships, challenging the boundaries of what a friend or a lover is — who my family is. I think that makes its way into every song I write in a personal-political way.
What do you hope someone listening to this record takes away from the experience?
Any emotion, really (laughs).
Is there a particular emotion that you associate with this record?
I’m really, really proud of it.
You can stream placeholder at NPR First Listen, and grab the Vinyl Me, Please exclusive edition over here.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.
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